Public Comment

Commentary: Remembering and Missing Naim and Halal Market

By Glen Hauer
Tuesday October 09, 2007

On Monday, a cardboard sign in the window of the Halal Market on San Pablo at University announced that it was closing. 

Inside, the formerly crammed shelves were nearly empty. Naim, the proprietor, usually a fixture behind the counter, was nowhere to be seen. A young nephew of Naim’s staffing the register responded to my astonished inquiry by informing me that Naim had had a heart attack. He was OK, taking it easy, still smoking.  

Halal means permissible according to Muslim law. So the shop sold no alcohol, no pork, and only meat slaughtered per that law. Above the merely permissible, upstairs there was a room for prayer—all were welcome, shoes removed. In the aisles next to the cartons of black tea were shelves of Islamic books for sale. And, depending on current events, Naim placed on his countertops handmade collection cans for humanitarian relief in various Muslim places. 

The Halal market first drew me in with its superb and very reasonably priced feta cheese, olives, and halvah. Later I discovered the amazing organic chicken, fresh on Thursdays, bulk spices and magnificent olive oil. Over time, I came to know Naim, who often offered tea and loved to make observations on Palestine, his homeland.  

Patrons did not merely shop at the Halal Market. Naim engaged us, even if we imagined that we were in a hurry. It would not do to simply sell something to someone he knew. He would talk with us, ask questions, state opinions. The result: there was usually a small knot of people from Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon, and neighboring places around Naim, congesting the checkout counter and the entryway, hanging out, arguing, relating.  

Naim personally knew every item among the rainbow of foodstuffs in his packed shop. He would present a sample of the exquisite fresh roasted peanuts that he had just bought fifty pounds of, or recommend the Lebanese olive oil as the best. He would offer a fig from the spectacular seasonal shipment of Turkish figs with a terse but accurate “very good.” I came to learn that his pronouncements were reliably correct. 

The tall, mustachioed butcher who presided over the lamb and chicken display, and operated the vintage meat-cutting saw in the back of the shop generally addressed me as “brother,” as in, “Will there be anything else for you, brother?” I found this irresistible, and would respond by asking for “the organic chicken legs, brother.”  

The organization of the fragrant spices along one wall, and the airy display of amber honey towards the front all expressed Naim’s sensibilities. The entire store, from the “Palestine Unbreakable” cartoon under the glass countertop to the hookahs on the top shelves was an expression of Naim’s own personality. This became starkly evident in the dispirited shell of a market that existed, temporarily, without him, like the body of a person who has died.  

Plainly, Naim’s family played an essential part in the thriving of the Halal Market. They often worked in the store: his thoughtful wife in traditional dress was a powerful, quick-witted, and warm presence. Their teen children would work the register while Naim was out, especially during school vacations. Last I heard, both daughters were in college.  

Speaking of family, Naim knew both my mother and my brother, and usually asked after them, or after something one of us had purchased. For example, he wanted to know how the lamb we had bought for my mother’s birthday feast had turned out. Since we had prepared it according to his instructions, it had pleased all of the nonvegetarian guests.  

From a much smaller shop tucked away on Ninth Street, Naim had built the Halal into this hub of commerce and socializing. Before his illness, he had talked about expanding to an even larger venue. During the time of the Halal Market, a Longs had moved in across the street. There could hardly be a greater contrast between the two establishments. There was no reason to go into the Longs unless one needed something they were selling. It closed, and remains empty, its passing unmourned. The Halal pre-existed Longs, and rightfully outlived it. 

Naim loved that I am a Jewish peace activist, and was particularly delighted when I told him about an action that my organization, Jewish Voice for Peace, had taken at a local Caterpillar dealership. (Caterpillar makes the huge bulldozers that the Israeli army uses to demolish Palestinian houses.) He had me tell the story of how we had surprised the Caterpillar management several times to friends visiting his shop. He graciously accepted a stack of postcards Jewish Voice for Peace had produced, protesting US policy towards Israel/Palestine for people to sign and send to Nancy Pelosi, and accorded them a place of honor upon his crowded countertop. 

Naim’s history includes layers of nuance and irony that characterize the situation of Israel and the Palestinians. Once when I told him that I had visited Hebron, an ancient Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank, he asked if I had also seen Kiryat Arba, the large, modern Israeli settlement near it. Naim volunteered that in the seventies, he had been one of the construction workers building Kiryat Arba. Naim’s job had been to build the settlement on his people’s land. 

There must be any number of small businesses in Berkeley, across the country, and around the world that share with the Halal market that they express the personality and imagination of their proprietors within the economic system they inhabit. To get to know these small operations is to become connected with the human beings who with their dreams, courage, and labor, build, sustain, and lead them. 

The immense skill, long hours and devoted work that Naim and his family invested in the Halal Market resulted in a precious and unique community institution. The market contributed a special human quality, unmistakably stamped with the personality of Naim, to that stretch of San Pablo. It will be remembered, and missed. 


Glen Hauer has lived and worked in Berkeley for 30 years.